Since 1975 diseases that originated in bats have killed over 16.000 people. Viruses such as Ebola, Nipah, SARS, MERS, and the newest 2019-nCoV endangered the lives of over 76.000 people that contacted one of the infections. The process is so simple that it can be scary: traces o bat feces come in contact with food that edible animals eat. Then the edible animals are eaten by humans. It’s a three steps process that can end up in a global health emergency as the new Coronavirus did in 2019.
The researchers are trying to find what is the connecting piece of the puzzle, which animals caught the virus from the bat, and passed on to humans. Snakes were believed to be the case, the Chinese cobra, but the virus is not compatible with the toxic environment. So, the snake got out of the question.
Former animals responsible for killing epidemics were taken into consideration: pigs and civets. They are easy to be suspected because they share with humans a common receptor called ACE2. This receptor exists in human cells, deep in people’s lungs, and the virus can dock to it.
But a new suspicious candidate has surfaced the research: the pangolin. It is an endangered mammal, and for the Chinese population an edible animal. The 99% identical pattern of the two viruses, the human and the one originated in pangolin, makes it hard to be overlooked. Researchers didn’t publish their paper yet, but it is very likely that when they do, pangolins will be decreed guilty as charged.
Pangolins might be the source of the new Coronavirus
Pangolins are the only known mammals that have large, protective keratin scales covering their skin. Due to their diet, they are an essential regulator of termite populations in their natural habitats.
Their body is comparable in appearance to a pine cone. When threatened, it curls up into a ball with its overlapping scales acting as armor. Like skunks, they too have glands near the anus that can emit a noxious-smelling chemical. But no armor or weapon is protective enough when your enemies are humans thriving for delicatessen.
The pangolin has keratin scales that are used in traditional Chinese medicinal remedies. The pangolin meat is a delicacy in China and Vietnam. One hundred thousand are estimated to be trafficked a year to China and Vietnam, amounting to over one million over the past decade. This, together with deforestation, has led to a massive decrease in the numbers of pangolins.
The eight species of pangolin became an endangered species. Being the most trafficked non-human species in the world, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species declared pangolin trade illegal in 2016. In China, an illicit trading animal is punishable by fines and jail time. But, from a pangolin point of view, maybe that just isn’t enough.